Does More Police Mean Less Crime[i]

History of COPS Hiring Program

The largest federal crime bill to date was signed by President Bill Clinton into law in September 1994 and known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The bill authorized $8.8B in spending on grants for state and local law enforcement agencies between 1994 and 2000 and created the office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS-NPO) that was responsible for the administration the grant funds. This crime bill created the COPS Universal Hiring Program (CHP), which covered 75% of the cost of new police hires for grant recipients. The grant award process was based on crime rate, citizen population, type of crimes reported using the UCR system under the jurisdiction of the applicant. The stated goal of the hiring grant program was to put 100,000 new police officers on the street.

CHP funding exceeded $1billion in fiscal years 1995–1999, but appropriations fell considerably in the early 2000’s.  By 2005 the amount appropriated to the program was only $20 million. The program was defunded due both to the retreat of crime as a central policy issue and to questions over the program’s effectiveness. Reports authored by the Heritage Foundation in 2001 and 2006 argued that hiring grants did not reduce crime because grants were used to supplant other expenditures rather than to expand neighborhood patrol officers.

Funding for the hiring program was increased in 2009 with President Obama’s signing of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). This program allocated $2 billion in new funds to the DOJ, with $1billion earmarked specifically for the COPS hiring program. The funding was seen both as a precautionary measure for keeping crime rates low in the face of a worsening economy and as a means to create or preserve as many as 5,000 police officer jobs across the country. Congressional appropriations exceeded $140 million annually between 2010 and 2013.  Hiring grants awarded in FY’s 2009–2011 were also more generous than in previous years, covering 100%, rather than 75%, of entry-level salary and fringe benefits for hires or rehires for three years.  Over 98% of cities above the minimum crime threshold were offered hiring grants. The average grant funded 1.7 officers per 10,000 residents, about 6% of current force size in a typical winning department, and carried a dollar value of $29 per city resident, or about $67,000 per funded officer per year.  Cities typically employ about 23 sworn officers per 10,000 residents and face cost-weighted crimes per capita of about $556.

Funding for police hiring, specifically through COPS, has been a priority of the Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In November, Sessions announced $98 million in new COPS grants, allowing 179 law enforcement agencies nationwide to hire 802 new full-time officers. COPS has provided over $14 billion in funding since 1994.

Effect of Increase in Patrol Officers

Hiring police is the main policy used by local governments for crime prevention. Police presence reduces crime by either deterring potential offenders or due to arrests. The increase in the police force due to the COP program are associated with significant declines in robberies, assaults, burglaries, and auto thefts.  Studies show that while property crimes are nearly six times more common than violent crimes, the average violent crime is about seventeen times more severe based on existing victimization cost estimates.

Among violent crimes, the results are statistically significant for murder, rape, and robbery, while the estimate is not significant for assault.  Data indicates that an additional officer prevents 0.11 murders, 0.53 rapes, and 1.98 robberies. There is a strong negative correlation between the increase in police force and the decrease in robberies. This result is in line with other studies that find that robbery responds most to an increase in the police force indicating that robbery is a particularly deterrable crime type. Among property crimes, the estimates indicate that police are associated with statistically significant declines in larceny and auto theft.

Steven Mello, in his study, finds that violent crime is more responsive than property crime to increases in police force size.  Declines in robbery and auto theft are particularly pronounced, with the point estimates suggesting that an additional police officer prevents 1.9 robberies and 5.1 auto thefts. He also finds evidence that police reduce murders. His study finds little evidence that arrests increased with the program induced police force expansions.  The lack of increase in arrest rates strongly suggest that a deterrence, rather than incapacitation (arrest), mechanism underlies the crime reductions. This pattern of results is consistent with the hypothesis that fiscal distress caused cities to employ fewer than the optimal number of officers, which may explain the large estimated treatment effects. A back of the envelope calculation suggests that the ARRA hiring program added about  9,450 officer-years at a total cost of about $1.75B, suggesting that the hiring grants are cost-effective if the annual social benefit attributable to a marginal police officer exceeds $185,000. Mello’s baseline estimate is about $350,000, suggesting a favorable benefit-cost ratio for program spending.

Studies using within-city variation in police deployments provide convincing evidence that police presence deter property crimes.  Scholars have documented that neighborhood crime declines by a temporary increased in police force (target areas).  However, the decrease in one area may be offset by crime displacement to another neighborhood. This is like playing cat and mouse.

Reason for Crime Decline

Increasing the police force may reduce crime through two channels – deterrence and/or incapacitation. Studies show that police deter crime by raising the expected cost associated with criminal behavior, causing fewer potential offenders to engage in crime. The chances of getting caught and going to jail increase.  However, an increased police force may also increase the number of individuals detained or incarcerated (arrests), which would reduce crime by incapacitating potential offenders. You can’t commit a crime if you’re behind bars. By which mechanism police reduce crime is of considerable interest because being in jail is associated with increased cost of incarceration in addition to the police wage bill.

It is interesting to note that the study suggests that arrests did not increase with the police force expansions, which is consistent with a deterrence mechanism underlying the estimated crime reductions.  Additionally, the increase in police force can assist the community in establishing effective crime watch programs within neighborhoods which also functions as a crime deterrence tool.

[i] More COPS, Less Crime,  Steven Mello,  Princeton University Industrial  Relations Section,  Simpson International Building Princeton, NJ 08544

Click here to get to Mello’s Publication.

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